Am I Responsible for Racism?

What the murder of Ahmaud Arbery means for all of us

When I first saw this story as a BBC article in my Facebook news feed, I ignored it. I remember thinking, “Oh no, not again. I don’t have the emotional capacity for this right now. I’ll get to it later.”

Throughout the day, the image of Ahmaud Arbery kept popping up in my friends’ newsfeeds. And yet I scrolled past them. “I don’t have the mental space for this,” I kept telling myself.

Then specific friends started posting about it – friends that don’t post much, but when they do, it’s usually important and full of wisdom. When I saw them post, I stopped and thought, “Ok, this is really serious.”

A man was jogging in his neighborhood when he was mistaken for a thief and shot and killed.

From the surface, it’s an unfortunate event.

But when you put it in the context of our country’s history of racism, it sadly becomes common and you understand why the black community is so angry and tired.

In recent years, America’s timeline has woven back and forth between shootings and protests. Closeup, it just looks like a series of unfortunate events… until you take a step back and you see they’re all connected in a fabric of willful ignorance and denial, cloaking the enduring danger and evil of systemic racism and white supremacy.

Pulling Back the Curtain of Ignorance

“Racism is not getting worse, it’s getting filmed”

This quote by Will Smith in an interview accurately describes the environment of race today, as well as this particular event with Ahmaud. Racism, and racist-fueled violence, has always existed. But it’s operated in the shadows because the justice system, the media, and our society have turned a blind eye. It’s only because of the emergence of camera phones and social media that some of these cases get spotlighted. Recent high profile cases have captured national attention, but they are only a small fraction of all the racist killings and violence that happen unnoticed and unreported.

From the time of Ahmaud Arbery’s murder, it took 74 days for the killers to be arrested. They were only arrested because the video of the killing was released publicly. Think about that. Even with video evidence of the murder, no one was charged with murder. If the video had not gone public, 2 murderers would have walked away free – not because they did it in secrecy and could not be found, but because they did it in broad daylight and the justice system didn’t care.

Understanding (White) Privilege

Throughout the past decade, shootings of unarmed African Americans, often by police, have been met with protests. Keep in mind that it was the persistent actions of the African American community where Ahmaud was killed that led to the release of the video.

While many white people have become advocates for racial justice, a large majority have pushed back against this with the reasoning that racism is not that bad and that people are overreacting.

In 2016, Colin Kaepernick started kneeling during the national anthem to protest the multiple murders of African Americans at the hands of police. White people flipped out because they had to watch a black man kneel on TV for a few seconds. They said it ruined their experience. They were blind to the injustice of innocent blacks dying, and cared more about the tradition of standing for a song before a football game. Some took it a step further to say it was disrespectful to the military (ignoring all the other people not paying attention during the anthem, that the national anthem is not representative of only the military, and the fact that it was Kaepernick’s army veteran friend who suggested he kneel as a respectful way to protest). Ok, I obviously still have a lot of pent-up frustration at the ridiculousness of the response to this, so I’ll stop here, but you can read more about it in my other article: Is It Disrespectful to Kneel During the National Anthem?

But it illustrates an aspect of white privilege that many white people don’t understand. For white people, it was an inconvenience to their entertainment. For black people, it was a statement and a plea for their lives.

The irony of white privilege is further illustrated during this Coronavirus quarantine. Mobs of white men across the country carried guns and stormed government buildings. Their cause? They wanted to eat out at restaurants. Nothing happened to them. No tear gas and no arrests.

This is white privilege: white protestors can forcibly enter a government building carrying rifles without any consequences, but if a black person carries anything resembling a gun or makes the slightest wrong hand gesture that looks like they’re reaching for a gun, they get shot. White armed protestors are lauded as “good people” and “patriots,” while unarmed black protestors are “sons of bitches” and “treasonous.”

This is only one example of white privilege – there are numerous other ways that it’s manifested, and a good starting point for understanding it is in this article: What Is White Privilege, Really?

But it’s not only white people who experience white privilege, it’s also other minorities. As an Asian-American, along with whites and other minorities who aren’t black, I don’t get nervous around police. That’s a racial privilege I have. For non-Latinos, we don’t worry about being questioned about our citizenship. For non-Arabs, we don’t worry about getting profiled at airports. And for non-Asians, you didn’t have to worry about getting harassed or assaulted during this Coronavirus pandemic because some delusional racist thought your brought Coronavirus to America.

As an Asian-American, I’ve experienced my share of racism. But this isn’t a “who has it worse” competition among minorities. We’re all discriminated against in different ways. In the circumstances where we don’t experience racism, we need to use that privilege to defend and advocate for those who do.

“But I’m Not Racist”

Nobody really thinks they’re racist.

Maybe you’ve said or thought something like this: “I’m not one of those racist idiots who killed someone.” “I treat everyone equally with respect.“ “My family member is married to a (insert race).”

Then you say or think this: “But, I’m just saying, (insert race) can be (insert generalization).”

When we think of racism, we often think of explicit racism – violence or derogatory words. But most of us, and I would comfortable say all of us, have some level of implicit racism.

We have generalizations, stereotypes, and feelings towards certain races that we’re not aware of. We unknowingly make comments or jokes that we think are harmless. We think and act less favorably towards certain races without even realizing it.

As a result, our collective small actions come together to form systemic and structural racism – an ongoing culture that allows and reaffirms inequality towards certain races. This isn’t just a theory. It’s been proven through extensive research and data in multiple industries. This article sums up how our unconscious bias creates an environment of racism. In these studies, it’s revealed that blacks are unconsciously treated more poorly than whites by law enforcement, doctors, teachers, and many other professions.

We’re all racist. Yes, even minorities. Our collective, unconscious biases create the environment where explicit racism like violence and murder can occur.

It’s Not Your Fault

This isn’t an accusation or blaming of white people as a whole. I think that would be a bit hypocritical. That was the purpose of pointing out how we’re all racist in some way.

However, there is a burden of responsibility. There’s a difference between fault and responsibility. If you’re white, it’s not your fault that slavery happened, that we live in society with structural racism, or that Ahmaud Arbery was killed. But I believe there’s a responsibility to work towards a more just and equitable society in which tragedies like this never happen again.

There’s nothing wrong with having white privilege (or privilege of any sort), but there has to be a realization that the privilege you experience comes from a history of explicit and horrific racism. That privilege needs to be a tool to right the wrongs, not a free pass to sit in ignorance.

But what we get wrong about privilege is we think equality would take that away. That’s a false, zero-sum mindset. Equality doesn’t take away from privilege, it gives it to others. For instance, one aspect of white privilege is to not fear for your life when you encounter police. Equality does not take that away from you. On the contrary, we want a society where no one has to be afraid of a police officer on a routine traffic stop.

Our Collective Responsibility

Racism in all its forms is perpetuated when those who have privilege remain passive. We may not be actively racist, but our silence gives permission for it to continue. If an act of racism occurs against someone who isn’t part of your race, then you are in the privileged majority – whether you’re white or in another racial minority. Here’s what you can do.

Don’t keep scrolling. It’s easy to write off a story because you feel like you’ve heard it before or you don’t have the capacity for it. Take the time to read it and learn the context. Allow yourself to feel. Be inconvenienced.

Develop friendships with people of other races. We misjudge people when we have no connection with them. We make assumptions about people’s situations, experiences, and motives. Take a hard look at your circle of friends and see who’s missing. That’s probably where your greatest blindspots and biases lie.

Listen. Listen to the stories and perspectives of minorities. Just listen. Don’t put on the filters of trying to explain, judge, or answer. Don’t stop listening. When there’s an act of racism, read what your friends who are minorities have to say, or actually talk to them and ask. Follow minorities on social media who often post about their thoughts on racism. Just listen.

Be vocal on their behalf Minorities voicing their concern will only go so far. We need those with privilege to be vocal. With this tragedy, everyone who is not African American needs to speak up. White people hold the most power and influence to move this conversation. Call out racism and set the tone. Help amplify the voices of minorities by reshaping their thoughts and perspectives, and adding your own voice to the mix.

It’s not enough to not be racist. We have to be antiracist. Simply not being racist is being silent. Silence is being complicit, and steps aside for ignorance, fear, and hatred to fill the space. Being antiracist is to fill the space and set the tone. This article explores a little more on what it means to be antiracist.

In America, we’ve made a lot of progress with racism. It’s far better now than it was before, but it’s no where near where it should be. There’s still a long road ahead. Sadly, there will be more racist violence and more deaths before we get there.

But we need to take collective responsibility and do the work. There will always be racist and hateful people in the world. They are not the majority, but they are definitely the loudest. Our silence and passivity gives them permission to perpetuate racism. But we can take responsibility, shift the conversation, and fill the space with justice and equality.

In America, we like to talk about how we’re the greatest country in the world. That’s not true when tragedies like this continue to happen. Maybe we shouldn’t be so obsessed with being great and work on being good.

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1 thought on “Am I Responsible for Racism?”

  1. Many of the concepts discussed in this article apply to ANY type of injustice which we see in this world, not just racism. One that came to mind as I was reading this article were the poor babies who lose their lives every day through abortion. Unfortunately they themselves have no voice so we need to move forward and speak on their behalf. We are privileged to be living, and we are guilty of promoting this tragedy if we remain silent on the topic and allow it to continue. As suggested in the title of this article, we are responsible for perpetuating the deaths of these innocent unborn babies if we sit back idly; therefore we should not be criticized for defending those who cannot defend themselves. Thanks for the article.

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